Surreal

It’s a day and a moment that I will forever remember. We had dreamed, we had prayed, we had hoped. We had talked, we had read, we had pondered. We had written and we had reported. Shalom Mordechai had become part of our lives in some way, shape or form.

While Shalom Mordechai’s belief in his salvation seemed ever-present, we, in an honest moment, will admit that we had moments of questioning and doubt. There were good tidings and then there were apparent setbacks. Our emotions seemed to be on a proverbial roller coaster for about a decade.

The reaction we witnessed to the phenomenal news this past week was a reflection of just how personal Shalom Mordechai’s plight was to Klal Yisroel across the globe.

Here at the Yated, we didn’t just report on Shalom Mordechai. We seemed to be living his saga week in and week out.

I recall like yesterday when Rabbi Lipschutz became the first member of the Jewish media or of any Jewish group to publicly recognize and bring attention to the miscarriage of justice perpetrated in this case. He had the courage of his conviction to wholly devote his newspaper – and, in truth, his life – to the cause of Shalom Mordechai.

I can vividly remember the early days, standing next to Rabbi Lipschutz while we put the finishing touches to the paper, wondering what type of backlash would greet that week’s article in the Yated in support of Rubashkin. At that time, almost no one understood what had really happened. Most people simply believed rumors and innuendos they had heard. They read the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, or The Forward, and they digested the information they were being fed about Shalom Mordechai, his company, the town of Postville, and whatever else was consistent with the storyline.

It was thanks to Rabbi Lipschutz’s persistence to reveal the truth and to shed light on this case that ultimately brought other people, and later Jewish organizations, on board. But the beginning of the campaign was a lonely battle, led by the Yated and its gallant and valiant publisher. At the time, we didn’t know that Rabbi Lipschutz would ultimately dedicate a decade of his life to this campaign, putting his personal reputation and the reputation of his newspaper on the line as he spearheaded this effort.

The Yated and the Rubashkin story thus became inextricably connected.

I remember Rabbi Lipschutz returning from his trip to Postville. He was tormented by the fact that what was being reported and what he saw with his own eyes could not have been more divergent. He witnessed the charity and generosity of Shalom Mordechai, while the newspapers were consumed with slandering him.

It was an unpopular stance to take, but Rabbi Lipschutz put pen to paper and wrote what was on his mind and in his heart. He couldn’t stand by silently as a good man was being maligned.

The campaign gained traction. Events in support of Rubashkin were arranged in communities across North America, drawing tens of thousands of Jews, who heard from legal experts and others.

I recall the first Rubashkin event in Lakewood, which was conceived and arranged in a matter of hours. I first presented the idea mid-afternoon on a Monday. Within hours, word was out. I ran to Bais Faiga Hall to set up chairs, while some good people offered to print signs and hang them up. I was afraid that the large wedding hall would be empty that night and I’d have egg on my face. I felt even worse because I had asked Rabbi Lipschutz to travel in from Monsey to address the gathering. The event ended up drawing over a thousand people, becoming the first of many such massive gatherings that, in total, drew tens of thousands. It was then that we realized that the campaign had become very personal to the members of our nation.

So many memories flood my mind. I remember an interview I conducted with Rabbi Genack of the OU in 2008 just as the seriousness of this matter was gaining attention. I still have a copy of a letter I wrote in 2009 offering to post a portion of Shalom Mordechai’s bail as a demonstration of belief that he was not to be viewed as a flight risk.

It was in November 2009 that a jury found him guilty of dozens of charges in a case that was comprised of a concoction of lies and misrepresentations.

I can remember it now. It was a Thursday night. I should have been taking care of various Shabbos preparations, but instead I sat in my study, unable to move, having just heard the jury’s verdict.

At the time, I wanted to tell the world of the evidence and testimony that the judge did not allow the defense to present to the jury. A jury listened for four weeks to flawed and empty testimony and decided that Shalom Mordechai was guilty of 86 of 91 charges.

It could drive one batty to contemplate how the very judge who ordered the unprecedented raid on Agriprocessors back in May 2008 was the judge presiding over the case against Shalom Mordechai. This is just one of a million questions we had over the past decade.

Perhaps there’s little use in rehashing the details of such farcical justice. More important in all this is the example set by Shalom Mordechai, who, between the walls of Otisville, lived with Hashem every second.

Even earlier, throughout his trial, he was more worried about spreading the word of Hashem than the fact that he was being judged for his very life.

This consummate oveid Hashem, during the days of his trial, was busy making copies of a sefer at the local Staples store in Sioux Falls. While awaiting the verdict, what was he doing? Giving a shiur to some bochurim who had come to give him chizuk.

When I spoke to Reb Shalom Mordechai then, he said modestly, “Mir darf hubben bitachon.”

To him, it was so simple. You believe in the Ribono Shel Olam. What the Master of the World does is good and with a reason. A Yid believes that there’s a plan. Even when you are the victim of a flawed judicial system and a biased judge, you maintain your trust in the Ribono Shel Olam.

That was Shalom Mordechai.

That is Shalom Mordechai.

Reb Shalom Mordechai is a “Tehillim Yid.” He has been completing Tehillim daily for years.

He’s a Yid who lives with Hakadosh Boruch Hu every day.

Last Wednesday night, hours after Shalom Mordechai was released, I couldn’t sleep. The excitement was too intense. Images of Shalom Mordechai filled my mind, as I tried to imagine where he was, smiling, thanking Hashem for his yeshuah. I thought of his parents, his wife, and his children.

Unable to sleep, I began to peruse some of the dozens of articles I have in my archives about the Rubashkin saga. As I read through them, I experienced the pain and torture of his ordeal all over again. I found an article I had written as early as 2009, stating, “The company that had provided meat to the greater Jewish community for years – and at no cost to countless kehillos and mosdos – and should have received support was left hanging for the unions and others to jump in and tear down. These efforts were buttressed by articles filled with distortions and falsifications about the Rubashkins printed in The Forward and on countless websites and blogs. To this day, shockingly, so many, in print and online, have been almost totally silent, failing to point out what has been nothing less than a travesty of justice, even before the verdict of the Sioux Falls jury was handed down.”

It’s hard to believe.

The Rubashkin story somehow made us all into legal experts. We were inundated with details of laws we had never heard of. We learned how prosecutors said that Shalom Mordechai’s company allegedly violated a 2002 order by the U.S. secretary of agriculture to pay cattle providers within 24 hours of a sale, a charge that stemmed from a 1921 law, the U.S. Packers and Stockyards Act. That requires “prompt payment” to protect livestock producer – a law that was studied by scholars who said they had never, ever, seen it invoked in a criminal case. We threw around legal jargon like we knew what we were talking about. It wasn’t out of arrogance or conceit. We were simply trying to make sense of the senseless. We were scratching our heads, trying to understand the incomprehensible.

Amidst all the darkness and gloom, even before last week, there were streaks of light and inspiration. There was, first and foremost, the unbending – and almost supernatural – spiritual strength of Reb Shalom Mordechai.

At the same time, there was an absolutely remarkable outpouring of support from Yidden across the country. From the privacy of their homes, Jews wrote out checks or donated by credit card to take part in an effort to help a Jew caught in a witch-hunt.

I remember looking through some of the checks that came in for the Pidyon Shvuyim Fund established for Shalom Mordechai. I saw true achdus on the ground level, with Yidden of all kinds responding to the Yated’s appeal and sending in checks ranging from $2 to $10,000. Many of these checks were accompanied by thoughtful notes, heartfelt brachos, and offers to help out in any way. I saw checks from Jews down south and donations by Lakewood yungeleit who barely have enough to sustain their own families. There were addresses from out West and donations from prominent rabbonim and askanim. The diversity of the donors was touching. Kids sold lemonade to raise a few dollars, while readers sent in their jewelry – actual jewels and trinkets – to be pawned so that the money could be contributed to the Rubashkin fund.

I saw how people cared. Rather than the cynicism and antipathy that some would have us believe prevail, I saw care, compassion and sensitivity. I saw the greatness of our people that you and I know exists in mammoth proportions, but that a small minority try to convince others is overstated.

My heart swelled with pride, because I knew that the Ribono Shel Olam could only be shepping nachas from the unbelievable exhibition of thought and concern being shown. It was heartwarming to observe the extent to which people took to heart the plight of a Jew they never met and knew very little about before.

I’ve heard amazing stories of demonstrations of nesias ohl in relation to this saga. There’s a person who hadn’t eaten chocolate since the day Reb Shalom Mordechai was imprisoned. There’s another who hadn’t put sugar in her tea for years as an expression of nesias ohl.

I spoke to a high school menaheles who told me that this past week, she got a phone call from a former talmidah who is now in shanah bais of seminary in Eretz Yisroel. The girl related that she remembered that years earlier, the principal told the students of the school that she doesn’t put her head down on her pillow to go to sleep until she davens for Reb Shalom Mordechai and other Yidden who are incarcerated, and she implored the students to each take on some kabbolah to show, in some way, that they feel their fellow Yidden’s pain. “Perhaps sleep on one pillow instead of two, or do something else to show how much you care,” the menaheles said then. Having heard of Reb Shalom Mordechai’s release, the student was calling from Eretz Yisroel to let her menaheles know that she had never forgotten that plea to be nosei b’ohl.

Thinking back, my mind seems drawn to Shalom Mordechai’s weekly phone call to Rabbi Lipschutz, who was kind enough to let us listen in and sometimes participate. The call on Tuesday actually began as a seder in Shaar Habitachon in Chovos Halevavos. At the time, the Yated was printed in a massive but decrepit print house in Long Island City, NY, where we would shlep each week to make the final preparations for that week’s edition.

Tuesday is a hectic day at the Yated. After a week of writing, editing, conferring and deliberating, there is urgency in the air. The faces of editors and graphic artists are marked with a sense of mission. There’s a lot to do and so little time to do it. Everyone works feverishly, paying careful attention to detail. No one’s distracted. Focus is paramount.

But then the phone would ring and everything would stop.

The cell phone would be put on speaker and a beep would be heard. A moment later, we were treated to a hearty laugh as the caller greeted Rabbi Lipschutz.

Amidst the grime and filth of the printing press environment was an oasis of holiness created by the study of two chavrusos. It was a sight to behold. I’ll never forget it.

The sound on the other end of the line was heavenly. Shalom Mordechai exuded such positivity and happiness despite everything that had been thrown at him.

When the Yated’s Tuesday operation moved to Monsey, the weekly phone call continued, not with the learning of Chovos Halevavos, but with the sharing of vertlach and divrei Torah.

Shalom Mordechai’s limited phone call minutes from prison were precious, so no time was wasted. But even if nothing of substance had been shared, I would have still been enriched by Shalom Mordechai’s gregariousness, optimism and sanguinity under such horrible circumstances.

How he spoke the way he did from prison I don’t know. Reb Shalom Mordechai is a fount of divrei Torah. This week’s parsha. Last week’s parsha. The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says this. But his commentary on last week’s parsha seems to indicate otherwise. And on and on. That this man maintained his strength and fortitude in a place designed to strip a person of those very qualities is mind-boggling. It was his unbreakable connection to Torah that was his lifeline. His comrades behind bars weren’t his fellow jail mates, but Rashi, the Rambam and the Ohr Hachaim.

I think back to the dozens of times Rabbi Lipschutz would tell Shalom Mordechai, “Soon, you’re going to get out, and then we’re going to go on our world tour together, spreading the word of Hashem.” And Shalom Mordechai would respond with a hearty “Amein.”

They believed it.

They really believed it, even when the odds were stacked against Shalom Mordechai’s release.

And here we are, so many years after this all started.

It’s dreamlike. It’s surreal. Mei’afeilah l’orah. So quickly.

Shalom Mordechai was released during the week of the parsha that discusses the aggalos, wagons. The posuk states, “And [Yaakov] saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to carry him, and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.” The Sheim MiShmuel explains that the word aggalah is similar to igul, meaning circle. The wheels of a wagon are circular, allowing it turn. Every turn of a wheel, the Sheim MiShmuel explains, is really part of an upward motion, for the part of the wheel that is turning downward is, in short order, going to turn upward. This, he says, is a lesson for everything that occurs in a person’s life. Every seeming downturn is, by Hashem’s orchestration, only a preparatory step for a subsequent turn upwards. The yeridah is thus simply the beginning of the aliyah.

Proper belief in Hashem mandates such an outlook.

At the same time, on the wheel of life, our upward trajectory can, so quickly, change direction. This awareness keeps one humble and modest, knowing that his success could be fleeting.

Shalom Mordechai personifies this healthy balance. He’s demonstrated time and time again that his belief in Hashem’s Hashgacha is unwavering.

This week, I was in touch with Shalom Mordechai’s family in preparation for this edition of the Yated. When I spoke to his son, Meir Simcha, I apologized for taking his and his family’s time. “I want to respect your family’s privacy, especially now,” I told him.

Meir Simcha laughed. And he allayed my fears. “A kesher has been created between us and Klal Yisroel,” he responded. “And now we want to make sure that it is a kesher shel kayama (an everlasting connection)!” He then offered any help he and his family could provide.

I’ve been inspired by the kindness, the gentility, the humility and the overall down-to-earth nature of the Rubashkin family over the past decade.

In 2010, Leah Rubashkin and her children were in Boro Park to visit their grandparents. As they strolled down the street, they came upon signs announcing the Boro Park Rubashkin rally. Shalom Mordechai’s son Uziel, now a teenager, was then just six years old. Uziel was ecstatic to see pictures of his father on the signs. He couldn’t contain his excitement. He pointed at the signs, jumping up and down. “Look, Mommy!” he yelled. “It’s Totty! It’s Totty!” He ran toward the signs and began to kiss them. “Look, Mommy, I’m kissing Totty! I’m kissing Totty! I can kush Totty!”

Uziel’s Totty had been taken away. Uziel and his siblings hadn’t been able to feel their father’s embrace. They weren’t able to do more than visit their father behind bars. But Uziel could kush his Totty from afar.

There’s another Father whose children have been separated from him. They want to hug Him and kiss Him, but they don’t always know how. And their transgressions and mistakes have sent them further and further away from their Father.

Inspired by this miraculous return of a father to his children, we pray, from the depths of our hearts, to be reunited with our own Father, for once and for all, in His Land, with the ultimate yeshuah, may it be in our days.